Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
2010, 320 pages, paperback, $15
howard jacobson’s the Finkler Question is about many things: destiny, fortune telling, infidelity, marriage, circumcision, friendship, fatherhood, annoying children, widowhood, the BBC, old age, and of course, Judaism. If this marriage of themes and subjects sounds ambitious, that’s because the hero of the 2010 Man Booker Prize winning novel, Julian Treslove, is on a Don Quixote-sized quest for the woman of his dreams; and, in his search, everything and nothing might lead him down the right path. Or spell his doom. One of the two. What follows is an often hilarious and moving account of one man’s attempt at keeping his sanity, understanding Jewish culture, and finding the woman of his dreams.
As the novel opens, we learn Treslove is a die hard romantic. Walking home from dinner one night, he gets brutally mugged by a woman outside a music shop. Not sure if there’s a connection between the mugging, women he’s dated in the past, the fact that he’s just had dinner with two Jewish friends, or if he’s just met the woman a fortune teller once prophesized he would fall in love with, Treslove begins a quest to discover the identity of his assailant.
While the set up of the novel may sound absurd (it is), Jacobson manages the voice of the protagonist in such a way to make it believable. The story that follows becomes a more serious meditation on the lives and marriages of three different men—Treslove and his two Jewish friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevik—and the friendship they share. Treslove is the father of two boys born out of wedlock and is a man in desperate need of an identity as a father, lover, and husband. Sam Finkler, a widower, is a commercially successful philosopher, who, while outwardly certain of himself, looks back on his marriage uncertain of the life and feelings he shared with his near perfect wife. And Libor Sevik, a widower as well, who, after having lived a life of devotion to his wife, discovers he’s sometimes been blind to the pain and suffering of others, as well as their potential for cruelty.
How Jacobson interweaves the story of each character is a product of his immense talent as a writer of different modes—both the comic and tragic. While we follow Treslove and his observations about life, love, and Jewish culture, knowing full well he’s a bit ‘daft,’ he’s surprisingly poignant. That said, the novel’s primary strength is also its major weakness. In the character of Treslove, we see a modern version of an older romantic archetype, in it death throws and an individual seeking an ineffable connection to a woman and the older order of family life—community, religious celebration, and ritual—but unable to find it. The conclusion of the novel is in many ways a commentary on the very nature of the ties that bind each character, past and present, romantic and not: people can and often do get trapped into believing things through the sheer force of their own conviction.
In the end, what makes Howard Jacobson’s book, The Finkler Question, an incredible novel is that it manages to stay true to the idea of a certain kind of representation—the characters are individuals who are both better and less than us in certain ways, but neither wholly one or the other. And in that way, the novel seems to excel at bringing the nature of people and modern life into light.